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Sport

Towering Courtois proving Madrid's unlikely talisman

MADRID (Reuters) - Real Madrid have relied on goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to get them out of trouble this season and they will be able to lean on him again in Saturday’s La Liga game against Cadiz after he overcame a small injury scare.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - Real Madrid v Getafe - Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium, Madrid, Spain - July 2, 2020 Real Madrid's Thibaut Courtois during the warm up before the match, as play resumes behind closed doors following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Courtois has been Madrid’s stand-out performer in their unbeaten start to the season, making 13 saves in four games to help the champions take an early lead in the standings despite some thoroughly unconvincing team displays.

The Belgian’s current status as Madrid’s talisman would have been hard to fathom at the end of a nightmarish first season at the club since switching from Chelsea.

He conceded 36 goals in 27 games and spent chunks of their miserable 2018/19 campaign sitting on the bench. He was also dropped in favour of Keylor Navas when Zinedine Zidane returned as coach in March 2019.

“I always knew what I had in me and what I could do,” Courtois told radio station Cadena Ser on Thursday.

“It is easy for people to cause debates by engaging in destructive criticism but I have always worked hard and focused on constructive criticism with people close to me.”

He remained a target for detractors early in the last campaign, letting in nine goals in the first five matches including a 3-0 defeat to Paris St Germain, but soon proved instrumental as the campaign progressed.

He was pivotal to Madrid’s surge to the title after the coronavirus stoppage, becoming the club’s first goalkeeper to win the award for conceding the least number of goals in a season since Iker Casillas in 2008.

Courtois, who is affectionately known as ‘The Giraffe’ due to his two-metre frame, has continued to thrive this season, producing some world-beating saves in narrow wins over Real Valladolid and Levante.

There was understandable disquiet among Madrid fans when he returned early from international duty with Belgium with a hip injury. However, he has been declared fit for a hectic week starting with Cadiz before a Champions League fixture against Shakhtar Donetsk and the ‘Clasico’ away to Barcelona the following Saturday.

Courtois’ fitness is a welcome boost for Madrid, who are depleted in defence as they are missing rightbacks Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola plus centreback Eder Militao, while forward Eden Hazard is still sidelined with a muscle problem.

Their injury problems mean Nacho Fernandez is set for another start and will come up against his younger brother Alex, who scored 13 goals in Cadiz’s promotion campaign last season.

Elsewhere, Barcelona visit Getafe, with coach Ronald Koeman facing a dilemma of whether to start Lionel Messi so soon after playing in Argentina’s World Cup qualifier against Bolivia on Tuesday.

Atletico Madrid visit Celta Vigo, searching for a response from their attackers after drawing their last two matches with Huesca and Villarreal 0-0.

Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Pritha Sarkar

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